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Youth Justice Reform

Any Young Person Can Make a Bad Decision. Every Kid Deserves a Chance.

We are creating the Milwaukee Model of Youth Justice Reform. The traditional youth justice system does not effectively serve youth or our community. While more and more neurological research shows that kids develop their accelerator far earlier than they develop a brake pedal, the traditional youth justice model treats kids as if they had the mental faculties of adults. However, Milwaukee County DHHS Children, Youth and Family Services knows if you take an evidence and trauma-informed, person-centered approach to youth justice, not only will you develop better outcomes for all children in our community, you will also develop a safer community.

Achieving Community Safety

CYFS believes that Community Safety is achieved when community members live in peace, harmony, and mutual respect and when citizens and community groups feel that they are empowered to impact behaviors in their community.  Enhancement of community safety is achieved when the following areas are the primary aim and focus: (1) Economic Opportunities for Families, (2) Enhancing Social Networks, (3) Building High-Quality Services and Supports, (4) Techniques for Advancing a Family Strengthening Agenda in Neighborhoods, and (5) Access to an Effective Educational System for Children and Youth.

Investing in Our Future Through Reform

As has been reported in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's series, "A Time to Heal," childhood trauma is an epidemic in Milwaukee, and has been for decades. Now, as neuroscience continues to improve as a field of study, we know more and more about how trauma, especially when experienced in childhood, literally changes the brain.

That childhood trauma can take the form of socioeconomic disadvantage, experiencing traumatic events like neighborhood violence and domestic abuse, and sometimes unmet behavioral health needs.

From the perspective of youth justice, that is already troubling. However, when youth are placed in detention facilities that create further traumatic experiences for the children placed in them, trauma ultimately begets further trauma, and becomes a feedback loop.

It's All About the Brain

Increasing bodies of scientific research show the human brain doesn't fully understand or respond normally to rewards, or inhibit impulses in order to plan and reach a goal, or even recognize peer pressure until about the age of 25.

By taking that body of knowledge, and folding it in to a system that focuses on risk assessment, community-based rehabilitation and skill-building alternatives, while also providing help to the family instead of just the youth, we can create better outcomes for our children both now and in the future.

The Milwaukee Model also creates better outcomes for our community pocketbook. In Wisconsin, each day a youth spends in a traditional youth correctional facility costs your community $390, or $142,000 per year. Those costs ultimately create poorer life outcomes than community settings and are more likely to result in youth continuing to commit crime as adults.

The CYFS YJ Blueprint

Since 2011, the Milwaukee County DHHS Children, Youth and Family Services has undertaken an extensive and ambitious set of reform and improvement goals, ranging from workforce training and development to data drive decision making and continuous quality improvement.

System Operations

Case Processing

Wisconsin’s youth justice code, Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 938, governs how delinquent youth and youths in need of protection (e.g. truants, runaways, uncontrollable youth) are processed through the system. The youth court has jurisdiction over any youth ages 10-16 years who is alleged to have violated any state or federal criminal law, except for youth who fall under the original jurisdiction of the adult court or who are waived into adult court.

Youths under age 10 who commit a delinquent act are not subject to delinquency proceedings, but are handled under the Juveniles in Need of Protection or Services (JIPS) provisions in chapter 938. The age of criminal responsibility is 17 years, where youth are generally serviced in the adult court system.

Wisconsin’s youth justice system is county-based, which means there are 72 local youth justice systems, where Milwaukee County is one of the 72.

Milwaukee County DHHS Childre, Youth and Family Services uses a systematic process to engage all youth and families referred to our jurisdiction for services.

Youth referrals are received in one of two manners in Milwaukee County:

  • The youth is taken into temporary custody by the police and immediately transported to our detention center
  • A police referral is issued and the youth is ordered to come into the community services division of our facility at a later date


In both instances, an assessment ensues to make the following determinations:

  • The risk level of the youth
  • Whether remaining in secure custody is the appropriate course of action
  • What information to refer to the District Attorney’s office for processing

While Milwaukee County’s youth population in 2014 was 86,653, Milwaukee County received 1,970 referrals during this time, which is approximately 2% of the total youth population. Of the 1,970, 967 (49%) youth were detained, 263 (13%) were not detained and 740 (38%) were ordered in.

  • If the youth is immediately transported to our detention center, the custody intake worker will complete the detention risk assessment instrument (DRAI), which is used to determine the appropriateness of that youth remaining in our secure facility or being released to another suitable alternative. The youth assessment screening instrument (YASI) is then initiated by the human service worker following the DRAI assessment to gather additional psychosocial historical information regarding that youth and family. Both items are explained further in the data driven decision making section of this document that corresponds with our operational manual.


  • In the event that the youth is ordered to appear at a later date, the first point of contact for the youth is with our HSW, who then contacts the youth and family to initiate the YASI. This process with the HSW is known as the intake interview, which compiles all the information necessary to make the referral to the DA’s office. The DA can then decide to file a petition, dismiss the referral (close the case or prosecution decline) or complete a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with the worker and family.

The HSW’s primary responsibility is to support the youth and family through the process, attend all court hearings, provide the necessary information to the courts that lends to informed decision-making for all parties, assist and support the youth and family with all court dispositions as well manage all referrals to mental health and community services. The HSW will also provide continuing advocacy and support services in the event that the youth is ordered to placement in a Department of Youth Corrections Facility and any associated aftercare needed.

Skilled and Credible Workforce

Our internal workforce is a key element to successful operations. The required skills and knowledge base, daily practices, roles, responsibilities, training expectations and ongoing professional development of staff is complex and multifaceted. We emphasis the importance of understanding the adolescent brain function and development in training our staff and provide support and tools necessary to apply a strength and family-centered approach.

In order to recruit, sustain and manage a comprehensive workforce, it is essential that we have a systematic method of training, professionally developing and recognizing staff on an ongoing basis. DYFS has developed and implemented a comprehensive module based training system that all new staff undergo as a part of the onboarding process. This extends beyond the basic human resources related orientation that is conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services that governs our division and extends to specific responsibilities associated with the roles carried out within our division.


The modules include a range of activities from a department-specific orientation and tour to the particular tasks associated with each role, complete with site tours of various community providers, games to enhance learning and final evaluations. DYFS is also committed to ongoing training and development for all staff after the onboarding process is completed. We have made a commitment for the department that requires at least 20 hours of training be offered annually to all staff.

Beyond training and education of staff, DYFS remains committed to ongoing recognition of all employees as well. DYFS has an annual staff appreciation and awards ceremony; team based activities that allow each team opportunities to grow together as well as individualized mechanisms to recognize staff for living our values in action. We have annual activities throughout the year for all staff to participate in that provide relief from the daily work responsibilities and department sponsored team retreats every year.


DYFS circulates a quarterly newsletter to recognize the positive attributes of our youth, staff and community providers in our network and continues to develop programs that recognize our employees on a daily, monthly and annual basis. All of these efforts come together to ensure that our staff have all the tools needed, are up to date on the latest youth justice strategies and models as well as have the support needed to perform at the highest possible level and remain invested in DYFS’s mission.

Data-Driven Decision Making

This principle involves not only the use of evidence-based practices to the extent possible for contracted providers within our external service network of community providers but extends to our internal operations and the use of data to drive any decision-making and practice changes. This division utilizes a number of evidence informed instruments and methods to aid in decision making through our contact with youth and families.

These tools build on the expertise and knowledge of our staff, as the tools alone cannot attain the quality intervention required.


These tools are described on greater detail in the operations manual: however, they include usage of an evolving data system, as well as application of the YASI, the DRAI tool, the GAIN assessment and the fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) screen.

For optimal service delivery, we align our decision-making processes with use of the dispositional matrix and the effective response grid (ERG), in addition to the standardized program evaluation protocol (SPEP). In addition, trauma-informed care (TIC) approaches, motivational interviewing (MI) techniques are at the center of our engagement practices.

Change Management

In recent years, DYFS has undertaken a great number of initiatives resulting in significant changes in how business is conducted. DYFS recognizes that in order for changes to be successfully adopted, it must invest in the people aspects of change with the aim of getting people to embrace the change, learn new behaviors, and sustain them willingly. Change management is a necessary companion to project management, which centers on a plan built around tasks, activities, deliverables, and timelines with the aim of getting from a current state to a future state.


As part of department-wide initiative through the Department of Health and Human Services, DYFS is adopting a change management framework to build internal change capabilities to drive organizational success and outcomes. This involves training and guiding designated Change Champions in a change management framework, tools and techniques that can applied across initiatives.

Continuous Quality Improvement

This division is involved in continuous improvement activities, which is a systematic and comprehensive approach to quality assurance and quality improvement that aims to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of programs and services rendered to youth, both internally and externally.

Programming and services should be designed to reduce the likelihood of any additional criminogenic behavior while sustaining the values of engagement with the community, individualizing services, collaborating in care and using evidence-informed practices.

For this reason, designing improvement activities that speak to elements that have been proven to be effective in these areas is key to ongoing quality improvement.


The mission of the CQI process is to identify the appropriate risk level of youth in order to match them with the appropriate service at the appropriate time in order to improve outcomes for youth justice youth through the continuous development of a systematic and comprehensive approach to quality assurance and quality improvement.

To develop the CQI process, this division implemented use of the standardized program evaluation protocol (SPEP) to our evaluation of services. The SPEP is a validated, data-driven rating scheme for determining how well an existing program matches research evidence for the effectiveness of that particular type of intervention for reducing recidivism among youth justice youth.

The SPEP model is based on analysis of more than 700 studies using meta-analytic techniques that have been conducted by Dr. Mark Lipsey and his colleagues over the last 20 years.


While we employ a number of different tools and techniques to inform the delivery of youth justice services, it is essential that we also maintain the tools used. With the JPM data system, we have the ability to conduct reporting on all elements of our tools and have created policy that guide the frequency and action required to assess periodically.

Addressing the reality of organizational drift is essential to maximizing our operations and application of the tools described herein.

Individualized Service Delivery

Family-Centered Practice

This division serves the youth and families in the community of Milwaukee County and has several guiding principles and division practices that work to support of efforts at this endeavor. To be effective at this charge, family-engagement is at the center of our operations and approach.

DYFS uses the YASI, which is an evidence-based tool that focuses on using motivational interviewing techniques to engage and obtain the youth’s story and family perspective to drive the intake, screening and case-planning process as it relates to identifying criminogenic needs and working to mitigate them.


In essence, this is how we partner with families to address the family dynamics and criminogenic needs that brought the youth into our system. This tool not only recognizes the risks associated with the behavior that brought the youth into the youth justice system, but it also identifies the strengths or positive aspects of the youth’s family system as well any community factors that may have contributed to their involvement in our system.

Furthermore, our dispositional matrix tool was developed based on the department’s best thinking and research on matching.

Youth justice decisions are made with the systematic application of this tool that uses the YASI risk assessment outcomes and the offense of the youth.


Trauma informed practices also govern this division’s approach to families, by recognizing the impact that adverse childhood experiences have on youth and families to identify and meet our clients’ needs.

We also engage in a complex process of permanency planning, collaboration across systems, and work to give our clients a voice in our operations.

Giving clients a voice involves not only recognizing alternative definitions of family as defined by the family, but also includes client satisfaction and grievance processes maintained by our quality assurance staff.

Least-Restrictive Setting for Youth

This principle embodies the philosophy of ensuring youth are placed in the least-restrictive settings.

DYFS seeks to maintain youth in their natural environments to the extent possible and align with the research that suggests least-restrictive settings offer the best outcomes for youth justice involved youth. This is in alignment with our permanency planning practices, where secure detention should be a last option for youth and that out of home care (OHC) involves a complex process (versus a quick and simple decision) to ensure that placing a youth in OHC is in the best interest of the youth and community.

To eliminate over reliance on out-of-home care placements (including group homes, foster care, residential care centers, and Division of Youth Corrections (DOJC) placements) and keeping with the principle of ensuring least restrictive environment, it is essential that careful consideration be given to establishing criteria that govern the use of each type of placement as well as the length of stay based on youth performance.


Integral to this process is analyzing data to understand how OHC placements are currently being used and historical trends.

This information can be used to pinpoint areas for further examination and reform of policy and practices aimed at addressing and safely reducing any uses of OHC placements that are determined to be inappropriate.

By using our dispositional matrix, we have aligned our processes in a way that allows to readily access this information.

Optimal Service Delivery

This principle encompasses the values of our governing body: Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

As previously stated, the values include respect, integrity, dignity, honesty, excellence, diversity and partnership. These values for providing services within the context of DHHS also encompass this division’s value-set, which includes person-centered, recovery-oriented, trauma-informed care, individualization, integration and collaboration, as well as continuity of care, from the point of engagement through discharge.

It is impossible for us to provide these services without the partnership that exists with our community providers, given that we offer services from prevention, to diversion, pre and post-disposition as well alternatives to secure placements and aftercare.

Given the array of needs youth and families may present with, we must also consider mental health services in order to truly apply a person-centered approach.


Our division partners with Wraparound Milwaukee to provide an array of mental health services to every youth and their family identified to have mental health needs as a result of the YASI or other collateral information gathered.

To achieve optimal service-delivery, DYFS works to ensure that the right youth receives the right amount of the right service at the right time. This level of individualization is essential to success for youth and is aligned with what the research suggests is best practice for measuring effectiveness in service delivery. In order to carry this out, we apply our dispositional matrix tool which incorporates a service matrix as a decision-making tool to adequately match services and youth.

To effectively managing our service array, there must always be considerations for realignment of resources as needed. This speaks to matching youth to services based on their risk and needs and realigning services delivered according to those identified needs.


Aligning the service-delivery system to incorporate the risk level and protective factors identified in the youth’s YASI with the offense with which the youth was referred and/or charged is essential. This consideration should drive the level of intervention provided to the youth and subsequent services rendered to increase the youth’s chance for success and reduce recidivism. This also speaks to the development and availability of an array of services that meet the needs of our youth and can be sustained via the reinvestment of our allocated resources into our most effective programming.

Not only are alignment and service array considered here, but the need to continuously collect data on this process to drive practice changes and decision-making for the organization, as well as effectively communicate this with our stakeholders are also important.

Community Accountability

Effective Collaboration and Communication With Stakeholders

This framework of collaboration is essential in communicating this division’s mission and goals to its stakeholders.

DYFS stakeholders includes various partners of the justice system, i.e., judiciary, public defenders, district attorneys, as well as community partners and providers, the public, our internal workforce and especially the youth and families served.

Our stakeholders extend to include the multi-systemic partners, various other counties and jurisdictions in Wisconsin, as well as nationwide.

We recognize the importance of having strong viable relationships with each of stakeholders in order to effectively deliver youth justice services.

This is why we create opportunities to maintain an open dialogue with our partners to solicit input on our processes, involve them in development of new innovations and share our outcomes to create the level of transparency required to collaborate.

  Click here for a list of our community stakeholders
  1. Community Providers
  2. Department of Health and Human Services
  3. DCSD Internal Workforce
  4. General Public
  5. Milwaukee County Children's Court Circuit Judges
  6. Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office
  7. Milwaukee County Public Defender’s Office
  8. Milwaukee County Youth and Families Served
  9. National Advisors
  10. State of Wisconsin
  11. Wraparound Milwaukee

Community Safety and Accountability

Addressing community safety is a central element of the DYFS mission. As such, it is critical that the resources available to monitor, detain, and provide effective interventions that can address public safety are used appropriately in accordance to the youth’s level of risk and need.

In addition, it is important that all stakeholders, including law enforcement and the courts, are aligned with this approach in order to assure that resources are utilized in the most effective and responsible manner.

DYFS will continue to engage our stakeholders around the adoption, application, and acceptance of tools that effectively measure risks and needs.

The acceptance of this approach by the courts, law enforcement, community leaders, legal community, and other system stakeholders is critical to the ultimate goal of establishing a justice system where decision making is not influenced by high profile incidents or short-term trends in offending but where objective tools guide professional judgment in addressing community safety needs effectively as an element of the youth’s rehabilitation plan.

“Accountability” is a term that is often synonymous with “punishment” for many in the lay community and, regrettably, for some who work within the youth justice system. This view of accountability encourages practices that focus on incapacitation and specific and general deterrence.


These ineffective approaches contribute to the alienation and social disaffection of youth, ignore risk and need factors, and fail to promote the development of pro-social skills. We acknowledge that accountability is a necessary component of youth justice but we strive for a restorative approach rather than a punitive one.

It is the aim of DYFS to promote a restorative concept of youth accountability where steps are taken to encourage youth to take responsibility for their actions and to repair the harm caused to victims. Such an approach requires engagement with community partners and the establishment of resources for youth to work or perform community service.

Most importantly, it involves engagement of youth in activities that help them to improve their capacity for moral reasoning, empathy, and the establishment of a pro-social connection to the community. Fair and appropriate consequences should also be included as a component of youth accountability. Such consequences should emphasize how the youth’s conduct result in the natural consequences imposed on himself and on others.

Restoration and healing should be the ultimate goal of consequence, versus retribution and punishment.


Another manner in which our facility is able to maintain the safety of the community when appropriate, is the use of our detention center. The detention facility provides secure custodial care of detained youth.

The Youth Detention Center management team has three layers that work in concert to manage all aspects of the center; Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, and the Youth Correctional Officer Supervisors. Another important component of the DT are the Youth Correctional Officers, who work directly with the youth in DT.

In addition to providing a safe and secure environment, the center provides education through Wauwatosa Public Schools, sanctions, short-term mental health services, basic health screens, medical follow-up and other short-term services as necessary.

While use of our detention facility is not a first resort, there are circumstances where temporary placement is warranted to maintain the safety of the community.

Community Engagement

DYFS spearheaded an effort to engage the community by developing a committee to focus primarily on the dynamics of our involvement with the community and the disparities that exists within the context of our youth justice system.

Working with the Racial and Ethnic Disparities (RED) Committee, a subcommittee of the Youth Detention Alternatives Initiatives Community Advisory Board, we are engaging members of the community to collaborate with youth justice in a way that has not been done before.

This includes not only giving the committee an overview of the system, sharing data on the demographics of our detention center and the reasons for their placement, but extends to inquiring input on possible solutions to the issues with disparities.

Simply stated, we are asking the community what they want and need for the youth within it and assessing how this collaboration can result in making the needed changes to the current youth justice system.


Moving this type of agenda forward at local levels requires commitment to key principles that drive the work, including:

  • Children should be served in the least restrictive setting possible
  • Families are key to the success of their children and should be empowered and engaged by the youth justice system
  • Eradicating racial, ethnic and gender disparities will significantly reduce commitments and placements
  • The system’s “pipeline” (from intake through probation/supervision to aftercare) all influence reliance on confinement and must be examined and strengthened to achieve reductions in out‐of‐home placements

Equality and Fairness

This principle ensures that our manner and approach to dealing with the population of youth served considers racial and ethnic disparity (RED) issues in the assessment, as well as other cultural considerations and disabilities afflicting the population served. DYFS values its clientele, meeting them where they are and providing services accordingly.

We seek to conduct planning and provide care to youth and families involved with the youth justice system so that similarly situated youth are treated similarly.

Moreover, in our efforts to analyze RED issues, application of an “equity lens” and intentional work to reduce bias at each decision point of detention reform is central. DYFS requires that a comprehensive approach be carried out by key champions and system stakeholders.

This includes but is not limited to our involvement in the Youth Detention Alternatives Initiative and other systematic methods of decision-making as well as ongoing validity studies of our tools.

Performance Measurement and Outcomes Monitoring

This principle speaks to the performance measures and contracting requirements that have been designed to reflect and institutionalize the concepts described herein and hold this division accountable.

Our performance measures include a number of specific measures that speak directly to our key operational decision-making points, as DYFS is committed to managing for performance, not just measuring performance. This is done by setting transformational goals and identifying key operational indicators to help achieve DYFS’s vision. This may include such things as fixing a significant performance deficit, adopting best practice within our operations or creating a new or innovative model for providing service to youth and families.

We also work to identify key measures to track ongoing performance in meeting our goals or develop key initiatives or strategies to meet our goals and then monitor and review our progress on a monthly basis. It is important that we ask the question “How will we be better off when we've accomplished the goal" and incorporate goals that lend themselves to workgroup participation and create opportunities for employee engagement and development.

Our performance measures and SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goals are reviewed and revised during the annual budget process for the following year and shared with all of DHHS and within the community. These include:

  • A focus on reducing out of home placements for youth
  • Reducing the use of secure detention and the Department of Corrections
  • Reducing recidivism while maintaining or increasing public safety


Program completion is also monitored, along with the average rate of the detention population to ensure the right youth are being served in detention. As of the fall of 2016, all of the data to support and monitor the performance measures is maintained within the Youth Program Management (YPM) system.

The most common indicator of youth justice system performance is recidivism. Generally speaking, recidivism is viewed as the commitment of a subsequent offense by a person already known to have committed a previous offense.

Recidivism rates typically refer to the percentage of offenders who recommit a new offense within a distinct period of time after interaction with the justice system (Public Policy Forum, 2012). However, a concrete national benchmark does not exist because there is substantial variation in how state and local youth justice systems measure the different components within this broad definition.

The Division of Youth and Family Services has begun to track recidivism as follows: a subsequent delinquency referral or adult offense that resulted in a new petition or a deferred prosecution agreement during the course of a supervision order (i.e. probation order, consent decree, or deferred prosecution agreement).

In other words, this measure captures recidivism occurring while the youth is under supervision for an initial offense. (The typical probation supervision order is one year; however, these orders may be extended.)

It is also important to note that youth are subject to the adult criminal justice system when they turn 17; therefore, recidivism must be tracked for youth who are 17 years old or older through a separate system (the Circuit Court Automation Program - CCAP).


We also measure a number of other items that speak to the effectiveness and success of our operations. These include:

  • Employee turnover
  • Measures on our services array, particularly the percentage of our programs that are dedicated to low versus high risk youth
  • Percentage of providers participating in our Continuous Quality Improvement Process
  • Provider Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol (SPEP) scores regarding the effectiveness of services rendered
  • Case processing statistics
  • Case planning efforts via the application of the reporting mechanisms of our dispositional matrix tool


1220 W. Vliet St.

Suite 301

Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53205

Our Vision

Together, creating healthy communities.

Our Mission

Empowering safe, healthy, meaningful lives.

Our Values

Partnership, Respect, Integrity, 

Diversity, Excellence

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